Life At Occupy Sydney


It has now been seven days since the Occupy Sydney protest began in the centre of the city’s financial and political district. 

In Martin Place surrounded by the towering buildings of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Westpac and the Seven Network, and close by the state parliament on Macquarie Street, a makeshift camp now exists.

Red carpet lines the space behind the fountains, nearby a garden of pot plants. Signs telling those passing by that all are welcome are hung from trees and chalked on the cement. Sleeping mats and blankets are piled neatly throughout the day and books are laid out on a tarpaulin as part of the "people’s library". An information desk offering advice and sunscreen is manned by volunteer "occupiers", and a kitchen run on donations is set up on borrowed milk-crates.

It all began on the afternoon of Saturday 15 October when over a thousand people came to Martin Place to rally in solidarity with the now global "Occupy" movement. The movement was instigated by Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters with the initial call out to occupy Wall Street on 17 September.

With the New York occupation protest ongoing, cities around the world joined the call, occupying their own city centres.

The movement has come to rally around the slogan of "we are the 99 per cent", which references the fact that the top 1 per cent of the US population control a 40 per cent of the wealth.

Protesters in Sydney acknowledge the situation in Australia is not the same as that in the United States. However one sign at Occupy Sydney points to the inequitable economic environment that exists here, listing the multi-billion dollar annual salaries of some of the CEOs of Australia’s top corporations. Figures that their employees will unlikely make across an entire lifetime of work.

In a hat tip to the initiative of Adbusters, several back copies of the magazine are available in the library, alongside books by Noam Chomsky and Edward Said.

A General Assembly takes place each evening from 6:30pm to make consensus based decisions and report back on the past 24 hours. Open working groups have been established to manage media, legal, outreach, entertainment, first aid, clean-up, food and police liaison.

Critical observers of the Occupy Sydney protest have expressed confusion and discontent with the broad nature of the grievances expressed by protesters. Objecting to a system that they say is not working, protesters say the result of which is deep economic inequality leading to a large number of social and environmental problems.

The Sydney Morning Herald called the demonstration "vague" and the Daily Telegraph deemed it "sit-in silliness".

One sign at Occupy Sydney put the common question to cardboard, "Why are we here? Because corporate greed has affected humans". The sign listed impacts including: stress, loss of culture, torture, wars, human trafficking, refugees, homelessness, poverty, unfair work practices, debt, loss of jobs, rising cost of living, depletion of natural resources, and privatisation of our food and water.

A sign from a protester at Occupy Wall Street urged onlookers to not confuse the complexity of the problem with chaos. A sign at Occupy Sydney says "your indifference is their strength". While many at the Occupy Sydney protest are involved in current campaigns, even those who criticise from afar have felt sufficiently confronted by the Occupy movement to engage in a conversation about whether or not the economic situation in Australia is acceptably just.

A common slur against the protesters is that they should "get a job". A couple of hundred people are at the protest site throughout the days and 50 to 100 people have been staying at the camp each night. So how is it that these people are able to gather in Martin Place for what has now been a week?

There are many university students, taking time out between lectures. There are some part time workers who come down between shifts. There are those who are underemployed which is both why they are there and how they are able to be there.

There are also full time workers who come before or after work. One protester told the group that since Saturday he was using his holiday leave to take time off work to be there. Another said he had been coming and going from the site in order to "take care of clients". Many come after work and stay for the evening.

There are seasoned activists alongside first-timers, young alongside old, anarchists beside city workers, and as a sign hung outside of the Reserve Bank noted "blanks and whites united".

Some people who are homeless have come to join the occupation too. "I haven’t always been on the streets, but after my divorce, things were tough, now all I have his this bag," one man told New Matilda. "Last night someone lent me a bed roll, I’m hoping I might get one again tonight," he said.

There are many people who have been unable to attend the protest due to work or family commitments but have expressed their support and given various financial or in-kind donations.

People have been generous bringing food for protesters: there have been dinners of cous cous and pasta, a bag of Tim Tams was donated by a man who had been in Tahrir during the toppling of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak earlier in the year, and two nights ago a young family came down with four trays of lamingtons. There has been support from various unions as well.

While tensions between various political groups simmered in the opening days of the protest, an open discussion during the second General Assembly quelled any potential division. Signs around the camp declare "#occupysydney is a political statement, not politically affiliated". Protesters are now working together to create an overarching statement and plan for two upcoming rallies.

The first mass rally is to be held in Martin Place tomorrow to celebrate a week of Occupy Sydney, and the following Saturday 29 October to back to global call for a 1 per cent tax on commodity and currency trades ("Robin Hood tax").

Do the protesters in Martin Place have all of the answers? They will be the first to admit that they do not. But in a year that saw AAP report unemployment rate "unexpectedly" rise, and the Sydney Morning Herald report that two million Australians, or one in 10, live below the poverty line, these protesters recognise that there is an abject economic inequality that has been accepted as the norm. Even Miranda Devine concedes that maybe the occupy protesters have a point.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.